The Autobiography of My Mother

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2004

Rosellen Brown, already known for her poems and short stories, has written an ambitious first novel. It is a remarkable attempt, both technically and thematically. The theme of the work is the conflict of love and law, a conflict which is embodied in the Stein family, mother Gerda, daughter Renata, and granddaughter Tippy. The story is told in the first person, Gerda and Renata speaking alternately, a method of exposition that allows great immediacy of effect. The fundamentally different styles in which mother and daughter express themselves constitute the most obvious key to the terms of their disagreement. Gerda, a lawyer, speaks with legalistic precision, marshals evidence, moves from point to point with rigorous organization. Witty and elegant, she makes a case. Renata’s discourse, contrarily, progresses by association, allusion, and metaphor. To sustain two so different modes of expression throughout the novel, to play them off against each other, is in itself a considerable technical achievement; this interplay is the medium in which the philosophical confrontation is worked out.

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The story begins at the end, the day of the picnic at Torora State Park. The events of that day, the last day of Tippy’s life, frame an account of the preceding year, beginning with Renata’s return, after eight years of wandering, to her mother’s apartment in New York. She brings Tippy, of whose existence Gerda is ignorant, hoping that the shared experience of childbirth and motherhood may form a bond between them, may soften her mother’s heart toward her. But mother and daughter take up their old argument with scarcely a missed beat, Gerda accusing Renata of deliberately wrecking herself, making herself a victim, in order to humiliate her mother, and Renata insisting on her right to Gerda’s love, regardless of her flaws.

In the course of the year the quarrel intensifies. Gerda, at first operating from a pinnacle of cold detachment, gradually finds herself awakening to feelings of love and kinship for Tippy, a thaw that is not without pain; at the same time her animus against Renata increases. Losing her objectivity, she becomes more punitive in her dealings with her daughter, condemns her on circumstantial evidence of willfully corrupting Tippy, and at last comes to the point of setting in motion the legal machinery for removing the child from Renata’s care. Renata, on the other hand, begins in a flaccid emotional state in which she is continually awash in tears of self-pity and self-reproach. Bitterness about her wretched childhood, guilt, and desperate love immobilize her. Her progress, less radical than Gerda’s, is toward a more objective appreciation of her obligations to Tippy, and finally toward a tougher sense of self which frees her to stand up to, even to pity, Gerda.

The guiding principle of Gerda’s life is her determination to defend her dignity, to protect herself from humiliation. Born poor, a French-speaking Jew in the German border-town of Colmar, she learned early what it meant to be everybody’s legitimate victim. As a young girl, she witnessed a cataclysmic scene in the office where her father worked as a petty clerk, a scene in which her father’s abjectness was matched by his employer’s savagery. Responding to a racial slur with his fists, her brother Addie was permanently crippled, and the whole family hounded from the city. From this seminal experience springs Gerda’s determination to make herself invulnerable. As a corollary to this resolve, she separates herself from those who are vulnerable, for she feels that to involve her feelings with people who let themselves be oppressed, is to connive at her own degradation.

The law, she decides, must be her weapon and her shield. By sheer persistence, she gains entrance to Harvard Law School and embarks single-mindedly on her chosen course. Achievement is the essence of her character: not just law school, but Harvard Law; not just law, but poverty law; not just clients but principles. For grief and rage are frail foundations for a court case, but robed in principle Gerda is invincible. Her concern is not so much for the truth as for the law; lawyer-like, she does not disdain to improve whatever advantages are at hand, such as the slight edge of moral superiority that accrues to her as a result of the mistaken assumption, uncorrected by her, that she is a concentration-camp survivor. It is also assumed, by the public if not by her colleagues, that having suffered, she is devoting her life to other sufferers out of natural sympathy. In fact, the opposite is true. Sympathy, in her view, not only is unnecessary, but positively inhibits her ability to serve, “weakens” her, makes her “a blunt object.” Her sympathy is reserved for those of her clients who, like her, insist upon having life on their own terms, who learn from their mistakes, who counterattack. She herself, by her own account, never makes the same mistake twice. Among the ones she has made once, she numbers, significantly, her assault on a racist doctor in Mississippi, and her brief, strange marriage.

The two acts are linked in her mind by their uncharacteristic impulsiveness. In both cases, she makes a deal with herself: a temporary indulgence balanced against a lifetime of control. She sees herself as a hereditary exile, freed by race and character to act for the helpless. Her tigerish attack on the Southern doctor, made on behalf of the mother of a murdered boy, serves too to avenge her brother Addie. Her act results in four days in jail and a six-month suspension for her, and no earthly advantage to anyone else, a lesson which she takes firmly to heart. Lost causes and quixotic gestures are not for her. The case of her cleaning lady’s son, dead of neglect in the hospital, leaves her unmoved; since she would almost certainly lose in court, no principle would be served and other more promising cases would suffer neglect. Her refusal either to weep or to act baffles Renata, who wants the torments of her loveless childhood and youth to find their justification in her mother’s ability to right wrongs.

At the juncture of her life at which Gerda meets her future husband, having passed the bar and joined a law firm, she is, for the first time, in a position to draw breath and look about her, and to indulge her curiosity, minimal though it is, about the ordinary relations between men and women. Her ideas about sex conditioned by her parents’ apparent mutual loathing, she views the matter as the ultimate humiliation, self-victimization, a surrender in no way repaid by the transitory neural jangle that is its object. Her husband’s gay naïveté, his quality of half-harnessed potential amuses her, as does his (to her) inexplicable passion for her body. It amuses her, too, to live for a time “the life of a turtle on its back,” mindless and infinitely penetrable. But from the beginning she thinks of her marriage as temporary, a sort of holiday. When the time comes for her to resume her dignity, she simply dispenses with her husband. The horrific fact of her pregnancy brings home to her how far her life has lapsed from her control.

To Gerda, Renata represents a never-healing wound, a means by which, against her own prodigious will, she can be continually humiliated. It has been her creed that one is responsible for one’s own condition in life; one chooses either to act or to be acted upon. This attitude of hers stands as a lifelong gesture of repudiation, of noncomplicity in her family’s groveling. Yet Renata is able to humble her early and late, from wet-diapered and colicky infancy to pathetic and directionless adulthood. Gerda’s naming her “Renata,” meaning “reborn,” suggests that she meant her to be another Gerda. In fact, that is what Renata is—a mirror-image, exactly opposite.

Renata is soft. That is her besetting sin, which Gerda cannot forgive. She is vague, sensual, endlessly distractible, whereas Gerda is cold, concentrated. If Gerda is a stone, as her name suggests, Renata is in the air molded around it. She is genuinely empathetic. Everyone’s troubles find a reponse in her. If she has one hard edge, it is her hatred for her mother’s work, that “other child” that absorbs all Gerda’s time and love. Her sexual excesses stem from her need to prove to herself that she exists; contact, penetration help her to define herself. Gerda derides her for not having the daring to concentrate, to lose herself in some enterprise, but Renata does not need to seek oblivion; nonbeing has been a wolf at her heels all her sentient life.

Renata’s return is a negative act, the tail-end of the positive step of leaving her latest lover. Whatever strength of will she may have gained from that exercise disappears when she confronts Gerda, as does every good intention and sensible thought. When Renata is with Gerda, she can take only the negative shape of Gerda. Gerda, blame-placer that she is, calls Renata her own worst enemy; Renata, blame-taker that she is, now sees herself as failing both her mother and her daughter. But though she is passive, she has a Gerda-like persistence; she wants Gerda’s love, and she will have it on her own terms.

At first, Gerda has things all her own way; she is the famous, successful one, the moneymaker, self-sufficient, practiced in debate, and firm in her sense of right. But things conspire, little by little, to undermine her. A group of inmates at the Women’s House of Detention set upon her and rape her; a social worker, an old friend, reopens a long-settled argument, accusing Gerda of caring more for principles than for people, and they part enemies; another old friend, from a Southern voter-registration campaign, dies in her arms, bringing home to her a sense of her own mortality and of the vanity of human endeavor; and her granddaughter, with her mixture of toughness and vulnerability, her dark hair and her flair for organization, reminds her so much of herself that she cannot help loving her. Finally, Renata finds and employs the ultimate weapon; silence. Walled away all her life by her mother’s lecturing, remonstrating, arguing—all, since devoid of love, equivalent to silence—Renata gives her a taste of her own medicine. Gerda is shaken; she says, in italics, “I am not accustomed to having no effect.” Silence erases her, denies her existence. To recover her power, to put Renata in her place, ostensibly to benefit Tippy but really to bolster herself, she decides to engineer a legal kidnaping. At Tippy’s death, it is Gerda, not Renata, who weeps.

Clearly, the lives of the two women are meant to come together, to mesh somehow at the child’s death. Unfortunately, by the time it occurs, the terms of the argument are thoroughly muddled. It is not apparent who, if anybody, has won; perhaps Tippy is the only winner. Gerda, it is true, has rejoined the human race, but at such a cost that it seems a dubious benefit. Renata, though dry-eyed, does not seem much more in control of herself or much nearer to finding peace than she did at the beginning. For all its technical impressiveness, the novel fails to resolve the struggle between Gerda and Renata; in this it resembles life more than art, but in a work of such pervasive artifice one expects to have things properly wound up. Less satisfying still, the question of whether law and love are mutually exclusive or mutually necessary passes without comment, apart from Gerda’s poignant query, “Must I love them, to serve them?” Yet despite these flaws, The Autobiography of My Mother is an excellent effort, notable for psychological accuracy, strongly drawn characters, and stylistic brilliance. The flavor of parent-child confrontation is here, powerfully evocative even to the most gently reared of readers.

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